Tag Archives: gladwell

The Unintended Cruelty of America’s Immigration Policies


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It is well documented that the Trump administration is pursing a senselessly cruel policy of prosecuting migrants at the border, detaining families, and incarcerating them in large, improvised detention centres. This includes taking children away from their parents and siblings and housing them separately for an extended period.

Pointlessly Cruel

Jeff Sessions has pointed out that this policy is “simply enforcing the law” and that it’s a deterrent. He lays any negative conseqences on the migrant families themselves, asking why they would risk bringing their children on this long and dangerous trek. Other members of the administration have pointed out that families who claim asylum at ports of entry are not being detained or split apart. This too is disingenuous, as the Trump administration has narrowed the reasons for asylum, and as the border has become increasingly militarized, migrants and asylum-seekers are being forced away from busy ports of entry and often into dangerous crossings.

 How did we get to this point? How did a nation which once prided itself on welcoming immigrants become a nation increasingly looking to punish individuals even as they seek asylum? Although some aspects of this cruel policy have long been present in America’s history, I think that particular fixation on migration from Mexico stems from an unintended starting point.

Unintended Consequences

A recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell explored the causes and effects of the militarized US-Mexico border. I found this podcast fascinating and I recommend listening to it. To summarize, for most of the 20th century, into the 1960s and 1970s, migration between the United States and Mexico was primarily cyclical. Migrants from rural areas near the border in Mexico would move to the United States for work, stay for a few months, and move back to Mexico with their families. This was an economic relationship and it worked because the cost of crossing the border was essentially zero. If you are apprehended, you’d be returned but otherwise it allowed for the flow of migrants into the United States and out of the United States.

In the early 1970s, however, the US-Mexico border began to be militarized. It happened almost by accident. An extremely skilled and dedicated retired Marine General took over immigration and naturalization services and began to tighten up the way in which border patrols operated. There was never any intent to cause suffering.  On the contrary, the original intent seem to be to harmonize border enforcement with existing law  in a way that benefited everyone. But what happened was that as the borders became less porous, migrants began seeking out for dangerous border crossings. Often these were in the high desert where risk of injury and death was higher, as the cost of crossing the border back and forth increased due to this danger, migrants were less likely to engage in cyclical migration but rather stayed in the United States and either send money home to Mexico or brought their families here.

This has profound implications for the current state of affairs. As each successive administration cracks down on illegal immigration, tightens the border, and militarizes the border patrol, it increases the risks and costs associated with crossing back and forth. Migrants still want to come to America, people are still claiming asylum, but illegal immigrants in the United States are persecuted and stay in hiding. Every indication is that the worst possible thing that could be done would be the actual construction of a wall.  In some ways, an analogy can be drawn to desire paths in public spaces. There is a natural flow to collective human behaviour. Civic planning and architecture does not always match, but human behaviour will always win out. People will continue to migrate and this will continue to be a problem.

Gladwell doesn’t say this, but it seems to me that the most rational and humane solution is a porous border. In a porous border, illegal immigrants are turned back when apprehended, but in a straightforward way. People are not apprehended and put into detention centers. Families are not charged with committing a misdemeanour offence and jailed prior to their hearings necessitating the removal of the children. In a porous border, there is still border security but the overall level of enforcement is lower.  In addition, a policy like this could benefit from increased access to green cards,  recognizing that many migrants wish to work in the United States for a few months. Unfortunately, no one in the Southwest (or anywhere else in America) is going to win an election with the promise of “Let’s make our border more porous and engage in lax border security.” That will not sell. But the evidence presented by the Mexican migration project and reviewed by Gladwell in his podcast suggests this would still be the most rational solution.

More Objective Research

This is one of those cases where we need more objective policy research, less political rhetoric. Has anyone asked an algorithm or computer model to determine the ideal level of border security? How much flow is tolerable? How does one balance economic detriment to having a relatively free flow of migrants with the costs associated with apprehension detention and deportation, and any associated criminal proceedings. The latter are expensive and human-resource intensive. Do to the risks of a porous border justify these expenses?

The thing is, these are computational problems. These are problems that demand rigorous computational analysis and not moralistic grandstanding about breaking the law for fears of drugs and criminals poring over the border.

The evidence seems to suggest that for decades, the relatively porous border had no ill effects on American society and was mutually beneficial to the US and to Mexican border regions. Though unintended, the slow militarization of the US-Mexico border restricted migration, made it more dangerous, which led to real costs illegal immigration thus necessitating a stronger more militaristic response, which creates a feedback loop. The harsher the enforcement the worse the problem gets.

The current administration has adopted the harshest enforcement yet, one that in my view is intentionally cruel, is a clear moral failing, and one that may be destined to fail anyway.

Gladwell versus the academy (a modern David and Goliath)

I’ll start with an admission: I have never read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

It’s nothing personal or principled, but I just never got around to it;  I tend to prefer reading fiction in my spare time anyway. I have enjoyed some of his essays in the New Yorker, but that’s about it. So I am not writing about the content of his books.  I’m writing about the reception that his book receive, the criticisms, and the apparent belief by many that he’s a scientist. This, it seems, really bothers some actual scientists.

Malcom Gladwell is an enormously successful and gifted writer. No one can argue with this. His books Blink, and The Tipping Point, and Outliers have have made accessible to many people outside the academic and scientific world an understanding of some of the most interesting and exciting ideas in cognition, social psychology, and neuroscience. He has a long career as a journalist, is well read, and he’s no Jonah Leher….

With each book, Gladwell’s stature has grown, but I have noticed the reaction from academics has been less than enthusiastic. Many feel that he misunderstands (or worse, misrepresents) the scientific studies upon which many of his books are built. Dan Simons and Chris Chabris are two of the more vocal critics, and they are both well-respected and well-known scientific psychologists. They argued (in an article posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education that many people were overly enthusiastic about the premises in Blink, namely that intuition can produce better outcomes than analytic cognition. It’s not that they necessarily thought the book was wrong so much that they felt everyone was misinterpreting what it was about. In fact, Simons and Chabris are the authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which argues that human intuitions can be very deceptive. The title, by the way, refers to one of Simons’s most well-know experiments.

They are not the only vocal critics. Steven Pinker is probably closer to Malcolm Gladwell in terms of being a public intellectual (and he has received his fair share of criticism as well). And he too is critical of Gladwell’s books for some of the same reasons. In a review of Outliers,  Pinker writes that “The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

So now Malcolm Gladwell has a new book, David and Goliath.  As I mentioned before, I have not read this book, so I make no attempts to provide my own critique. But one anecdote in particular seems to have garnered a lot of attention. Gladwell discusses several stories of people who became very successful despite having dyslexia. His thesis seems to be that having dyslexia made it just a little harder for these people to get by, and so maybe they worked a little harder and compensated for the dyslexia and thus achieved greatness. Gladwell calls this  “the theory of desirable difficulty.” He bases this (apparently) on a study from 2007 in which subjects who read a mathematical reasoning problem in a hard-to-read typeface actually outperformed subjects who read the same problems in an easier to read typeface. So there may be a connection, but there may not be.

In a recent review in the WSJ, Christopher Chabris takes Gladwell to task. He points out that the 2007 study in question has not replicated that well. He wonders why Gladwell does not point this out. He wonders why Gladwell asserts as “laws” phenomena with many possible interpretations. The review is critical, and very good, and points out what I really think people should be aware of  when they read Gladwell’s book, namely that  it contains interesting anecdotes mixed with science, and that the writing is very good and persuasive. This need not be a bad thing, and Gladwell and his supportive critics point out that this is a great narrative form, and is exactly what makes Gladwell so good. Stories matter. Narrative matters. But the expanded version on Chabris’s blog went further, and Chabris worries that Gladwell knows full well that people over interpret his books and he simply does not care. He writes “I can certainly think of one gifted writer with a huge audience who doesn’t seem to care that much. I think the effect is the propagation of a lot of wrong beliefs among a vast audience of influential people. And that’s unfortunate.”


Is this envy? I do not think so. Dan Simons and Chabris are successful authors in their own right. So is Steven Pinker. But the difference is that they are also successful academics and researchers. Chabris makes the point that many people simply consider Gladwell to be an authority, rather than an author. The term “Gladwellian” exists.

The review was critical enough to cause Mr Gladwell to respond on Slate.com. Gladwell suggested that “Chabris should calm down”, and  he even takes a mild swipe at Mr. Chabris’ wife. Why so personal? I will confess, that I did not find Gladwell’s Slate response to be very flattering. It came across as arrogant and dismissive. Does Gladwell imagine himself as the David and the Academy as the Goliath? Possibly, though I’m inclined to think the opposite. Gladwell’s “brand” is so big that he is very likely the Goliath in this this fight. And (in keeping with the these of his new book)  his gifts–his incredible writing talent– may very well be what could bring him down.

In the end, I’m glad that this debate is even able to happen. I’m glad that there is a journalist and writer like Malcolm Gladwell  who is interested and exited enough by human behavior and psychology to write best sellers. I’m glad that there are serious and respected scientist like Chabris and Simons to call him out when the claims go to far.

In the course of following these criticisms and counter criticisms  I’ve become much more interested in reading this work. I fully plan to read Gladwell’s book of Essays (What The Dog Saw)  and some of his books. As well, I’m planning to read Simons and Chabris book too. All concerned parties can rest assured  that I’ll be checking them out of my public library soon, and that no actual cash will flow.